Central to Anne Stuart’s 1991 contemporary Southern Gothic romance, The Night of the Phantom are kidnappings, violence, fanaticism, revenge. There’s also attempted suicide, ableism and perhaps appropriative and exploitative depictions of race. Frankly, I lost count of possible issues one might have with this book because I got sucked in.
Let this serve as a warning.
On the eve of upstanding executive Megan Carey’s departure for a European sabbatical, she finds her construction-mogul father in his office pointing a gun at his head.
Reese Carey is threatened with exposure by reclusive, genius architect Ethan Winslowe, who has proof that Megan’s father knowingly ignored the specs and used shoddy materials in his projects causing the deaths of several people after a building collapse. At the time, flaws in Ethan’s intricate design were blamed and now Ethan wants Reese to show up at his isolated Arkansas home and beg for mercy.
Reese maneuvers his daughter to go in his place to negotiate with Ethan. Megan agrees, even after realizing that her father never intended to go through with suicide (the gun isn’t loaded and her father has already made travel arrangements for her). She arrives in Oak Grove, Arkansas, a creepy, unfriendly small town whose residents are prone to gnomic and menacing pronouncements about reclusive hometown boy, Ethan.
Megan finds her plans to plead for clemency for Reese and to move on with her European trip derailed. Her rental car is trapped in the mud. Ethan has no telephone. (?!?) And, oh yes, through his henchman, Salvatore, the mysterious architect demands that Megan stay on in his labyrinthine estate in place of Reese.
Ethan is rumored to be severely disfigured or ill, or kept alive on ventilators. In reality, he is not sickly; in fact, he’s prone to running miles and miles on his indoor track and hefting fainting ladies around his vast maze-like home. (A robust-looking Fabio stares skeptically out from the original Harlequin American Romance cover, perhaps doubting his fitness to play the lean and agonized Ethan.) His so-called disfigurement consists of (spoiler) a dark birthmark which bisects his face and chest. (I spent some time before re-reading trying to remember where the birthmark ended and—uh—whether it split Ethan’s ween. It does not.) When he does finally meet Megan, he has her escorted to the bowels of his home and he speaks to her from the shadows. She’s moved to a succession of theme rooms every night: a tower room with a pallet, a Roman room featuring lewd frescoes, an angular, ultramodern pad—basically the worst fantasy honeymoon hotel in the world. He outfits her in diaphanous, low cut caftans and spies on her via video camera. Because of course he’s fascinated with her and she with him.
The story is a little Beauty and the Beast, a little Phantom of the Opera. Ethan sits at the center of it all, orchestrating a series of convoluted revenge plots against Megan’s father, against the town’s white-hooded, cross-burning religious fanatics who he blames for his father’s death. A gentle but bossy garden ghost counsels Megan. And she and Ethan grow closer and more obsessed with each other until an angry fanatical mob descends on his house.
Phantom first was passed on to me in a box of Harlequins someone gave my parents in the early 1990s. I was 22 or 23.
Among the books was also a novel about a virginal Englishwoman who falls in love with the renowned Italian portraitist, and a romantic comedy about a crusty computer engineer who gets to know her boss via a proto online forum. I’d be interested in finding these novels again, but I don’t recall the names or the authors. I didn’t remember Anne Stuart’s name either, but Phantom is the one I managed to come across again years later—entirely by accident—while systematically (and obsessively) attempting (and failing) to read all of the New York Public Library’s romance e-books.
Phantom was part of a collection of re-issues, called appropriate enough Out of Print Gems, put out by Stuart herself. I began reading, and as Reese Carey started talking about his reclusive genius architect that recognition—and joy!—dawned.
I remembered this book. I remembered it because I devoured it greedily. And because this book was completely banana sandwiches.
Anne Stuart herself knows it. According to the introduction in Out of Print Gems, “I threw everything I had into the book, going completely over the top and holding nothing back.”
Phantom was popular and controversial enough to inspire the Silhouette Shadows line.
For Stuart, Phantom marked her turn into writing the dark stories with sinister heroes. Now, Stuart is famous for male leads who skate on the edge of being irredeemable—some would say they are irredeemable. True to form, Ethan Winslowe is compelling, single-minded, great at sexing, the standout sociopath in a book rich with DSM-worthy personalities.
In a lot of ways, Phantom is the kind of romance novel that people who hate romance novels point to when they argue that the genre is terrible. (I love romance novels and now I write them, so these are not my people and they probably wouldn’t much care for me, either.) There is, for example, Megan and Ethan’s relationship: Ethan blackmails Megan, lies to her, locks in her room and watches her in person and on video cameras. He leaves her with nothing but Stephen King novels to read. She cracks wise and protests her captivity, but Stuart herself alludes to Megan’s lassitude in face of Ethan’s sexual power.
“She was his to do whatever he wanted with, and if she felt passive, it was an oddly, intensely erotic passivity.”
Megan and Ethan do not always model a healthy relationship. But listen, at 22—an earnest and callow 22 at that—I got that this was so not the point of this particular book.
A far more troubling element for me now is how Ethan is presented as an exotic and uncontrollable Other, more legend than reality. Even after they knock boots, Megan spends more time discussing him with other people (and a ghost) than she does talking with Ethan himself. Hand in hand with this is the possibility that Ethan Winslowe can be read as biracial—as black. This is maybe not the accepted reading—the Fabio cover probably means most readers and editors default to white—and it wasn’t obvious to me before but now it is pretty much impossible for me not to read Ethan as black. I mean, look at the townspeople’s reaction to him:
They were dressed in white. White sheets to be exact, with hoods, eye holes cut out, and there had to be at least thirty of them…. In front of them, providing illumination, was a burning cross.
And aside from the Birth of a Nation scene, there is the fact that Ethan’s body is, y’know, two colors. (And he’s the initially scapegoat when Reese Carey’s—a white man’s—building/institution literally crumbles.) And believe me I really do understand that having a two-toned face and body is not how being biracial works but we’re not exactly reading a textbook here. The hints are there. But if this reading holds true, then this book, while sympathetic to Ethan, is also troublingly exploitative of him.
I don’t quite know what to do with this. I don’t know.
I found Night of the Phantom compelling and fascinating in the 1990s and it remains so for me in 2016, but it has never been a comfortable fascination. Of course, finding pieces of pop culture, terrible, wonderful, appropriative, and enthralling—oftentimes all at the same time—is pretty much the permanent condition of living as a non-white woman in North America.
I read once that dreams aren’t really symbolic or portentous—that they’re just the place where the brain processes external stimulus.
Phantom is dreamlike in its overt use of symbols, but also in the way it processes all that cultural flotsam and jetsam, remaking stories that we’re told and re-tell, binding them together with the organizing principle of the happy ever after.
Megan wasn’t sure what she’d expected. Lon Chaney with his skeletal face in The Phantom of the Opera. Freddy Krueger, dripping blood. As Ethan Winslow turned slow to face her, she was ready to see almost anything. Except what she did see.
Stuart touches on Ethan as the Beast, or a creature of horror. At another point, Ethan gives Megan a ring with a picture of Janus, the two-faced god.
In Night of the Phantom we are given many stories. The alchemy of these elements what I respond to—this is what makes me find it compelling even while I don’t always know what to do with it, or how to find my way out. And in that refashioning lies—for me at least—some great part of romance’s power. Part of me finds its genre-ness fascinating; my mind enjoys the repetition and refinements of tropes, which are, after all, the themes and stories that propel our culture for better or for worse. Another part of me really likes the idea that these cultural stories can be re-written, that outcomes can change—that eventually I can change them.
(And other times I just like fun banter. I find that in romance, too.)
For me, romance novels serve many functions. They aren’t always escape or comfort reading, although that’s fine if they are. They don’t always reflect women’s desires, or supply role models, although sometimes they do. After all, in that box in which I found Phantom back in the 1990s was also a book about a thorny female computer engineer. I’d be writing about that book, too, if I could find it again.
I reject the notion that all romance novels are crappily written, mass-produced heteronormative mommy porn, responsible for making women long for things they can’t have and also somehow setting women back hundreds of years. But I reject the standard response to these charges: that romance is actually super-duper feminist. That peppy vision of the genre is in its own way whitewashed; that notion seriously undervalues the motivations of readers and writers. What I do accept is that the genre is vast and heterogeneous, and that our reasons for reading it can be complicated and simple, and both at once.
top photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash